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A Brexit reset?

Mar 02,2023 - Last updated at Mar 02,2023

LONDON — Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the December 2019 general election on the promise that he had an “oven-ready deal” to “get Brexit done”. But while the United Kingdom did leave the European Union in January 2020, Johnson’s deal included a deeply contentious protocol governing the special trade status of Northern Ireland. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s successful negotiation of an amended deal with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is thus a welcome development, one that could mark a turning point in UK-EU relations.

Brexit was an irresponsible act of self-sabotage that not only wrecked the UK’s economic and political relations with the EU, but also threatened the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. It was only in 1998 that, thanks to the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland escaped a violent three-decade-long conflict between Protestant “unionists”, who mostly wish to remain in the UK, and Catholic “nationalists”, who mostly want to join the Republic of Ireland.

Johnson’s decision that the UK would leave the EU single market and customs union and adopt its own trade rules, import tariffs, and product regulations required the erection of customs barriers between the UK and the EU. But there was broad agreement that imposing a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

Johnson’s “solution” was to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market for goods and bound by EU customs rules, while denying that this would result in any trade barriers within the UK — that is, between Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland. But that was not true: the Northern Ireland Protocol required inspections and document checks at British ports on all goods shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland.

The economic disruption has been considerable, with political consequences to match. Many unionists and Brexiteers were furious that Northern Ireland had been separated from the rest of the UK and remained subject to EU law. Johnson’s response was as ill-advised as his original plan: shortly before his forced resignation last year, he introduced legislation to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol that he himself had negotiated, threatening a trade war with the EU.

Sunak’s revised deal, the “Windsor Framework”, does not eliminate all these tensions, but it goes a long way toward easing them. While there will still be customs checks on goods sent to Northern Ireland from Britain that are destined for Ireland and the rest of the EU, trusted traders, such as UK supermarket chains, will be able to ship produce to their Northern Ireland stores without any checks. Medicines licensed in the UK but not yet approved in the EU will be available in Northern Ireland. Mail parcels and pets will be able to cross the Irish Sea unimpeded.

This is a coup for Sunak. With patient diplomacy, honest dealing, and technocratic attention to detail, he secured a much better deal than Johnson did, and restored a modicum of trust between the UK and the EU. Already, the EU has invited the UK to rejoin its €95 billion ($101 billion) Horizon Europe program, which funds research and innovation, and France is promising closer cooperation with the UK to stem an influx of migrants in flimsy boats crossing the English Channel.

Within the UK, however, political conflicts are likely to persist. Extremists in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party may reject the deal and continue to boycott the province’s power-sharing government, thereby leaving it suspended. Some Brexit hardliners within Sunak’s Conservative Party might also oppose it, because the deal leaves Northern Ireland under the partial jurisdiction of the EU. The opportunistic Johnson, who is still agitating for a return as prime minister, will undoubtedly attempt to foment opposition.

To be sure, the Windsor Framework still seems set to be approved by the UK Parliament. But if votes from opposition Labour MPs are what clinches that outcome, Sunak’s standing in the Conservative Party would be diminished. Renewed civil war among the Tories would hurt their already disastrously low poll ratings, increasing the chances that jittery Conservative MPs will ditch Sunak before the next general election, due by January 2025.

If, however, Sunak succeeds in overcoming opposition to his deal, his political standing could be greatly enhanced, with the public viewing him as a bold leader willing to face down his party’s extremists in order to advance the national interest. His chances of pulling off a shock victory in the next election, though still slim, would rise.

For the EU, the new deal on Northern Ireland is less important, but still significant. Following the Brexit referendum in 2016, the EU was gripped by fears that a populist wave would lead to more “exits,” and possibly even the Union’s eventual collapse. But most Europeans have come to view Brexit as a disaster. Not even far-right populists like France’s Marine Le Pen advocate following in the UK’s footsteps today.

The economic threat that a post-Brexit UK could undermine the EU single market by cutting taxes and slashing regulation has also receded. When Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss announced huge unfunded tax cuts last autumn, interest rates spiked and the pound plunged, forcing her resignation. Given this, the EU can afford to take a more flexible and accommodating approach toward the UK. (To its credit, that is precisely what it has been doing.)

While Europe has more urgent matters to attend to than the outstanding details of Brexit, not least the Ukraine war and accompanying energy crisis, the EU and the UK need to collaborate more closely on these challenges, where possible.

This makes the Northern Ireland deal all the more valuable. After seven long years of blowing up bridges with the EU, the UK may finally have begun the long work of rebuilding them.


Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission, is visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the author of “Them and Us: How Immigrants and Locals Can Thrive Together” (Oneworld, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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